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My column appears every other Monday in the business section of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. If you missed it on hard copy, you can read it here.

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Sample column

Effective Writing
Copyright 2013 by Stephen Wilbers, Ph.D.

Use paragraphs for four Cs:
clarity, coherence, control, & credibility

by Stephen Wilbers

I do love my iPhone. I do love my computer. I do love the Internet.


I love their power and speed and instantaneous access to information. I love the things they do for me. I love the way they guide me to my destination, highlight my errors, and suggest alternative word choices. I love the way they let my father see his only great grandchild and hear her sweet newborn sounds six weeks before he died.


I do hereby profess my affection for – and near total dependence on – these devices and technologies. I make this declaration so that you won’t think me a Luddite for writing another column on how these technologies may be undermining your ability to communicate.


 But, in fact, they may be.


There’s nothing inherently wrong with quick, short communication, no more than it’s wrong to occasionally use a one-sentence paragraph to create emphasis (as I did with the previous paragraph). Texting is concise and to the point, and dropping in a one-sentence paragraph varies the pace. But if all you ever write are quick, disjointed messages and one-sentence paragraphs, you may be losing your ability to organize your thought into longer, logically developed arguments. You may be losing your ability to think deeply.


Carefully structured paragraphs are the building blocks of writing. They give us the four Cs of effective communication: clarity, coherence, control, and credibility.



If you want the reader to follow your thought, you need to do three things: Tell the reader where you’re going, present your information or explain your thinking, and offer your conclusion. In brief exchanges, with the context established, this three-part structure may not be needed, but for more substantive, deliberate, thoughtful writing, it’s essential. The three-part paragraph provides a roadmap: topic, development, resolution.



Paragraphs help you connect your thoughts. A paragraph may contain a number of points, but every point is linked to a unifying theme and every sentence supports the main purpose. After you have drafted your document, you can check its organization by reading the first sentence of each paragraph. Have you created a logical progression? Have you repeated yourself? Have you omitted a key point?



These building blocks of composition help you set your pace and control your emphasis. Shorter paragraphs create a faster pace and a less formal style. Longer paragraphs create a slower pace and a more formal style. Because first and last sentences have natural prominence, key points go there. Quotations normally work best in these locations. In legal writing, positive information is presented first and last; negative information is buried in the middle.



Credibility results from multiple factors: command of language, knowledge of subject, rapport with audience, word choice, sentence structure, and – perhaps surprisingly – paragraphing. To write in paragraphs is to demonstrate how your mind works. When the Declaration of Independence or the Gettysburg Address is rendered in PowerPoint, their power is lost. Outline format presents information but fails to convey an essential element: quality of mind, sometimes called “voice” in writing.


Write in sentences, but think in paragraphs.

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